BSLS conference 2007
I'm just back from the British Society and Literature and Science conference in Birmingham and I'm still buzzing from how great it was.
There was load of discussion on children - indeed, the conference ended with a lecture from Sally Shuttleworth, on 'Childhood Lies in Victorian Literature and Science'. On the first day was a session devoted to children's books, consisting of my paper on references to the sublime in Horrible Science and a report from Farah Mendlesohn on her empirical research into what children enjoy in science fiction. There were also references to the Rats of NIMH in a paper from a group at the LSE, atomic education in 1940s-60s in a paper on nuclear imagery from Charlotte Sleigh and some discussion on the disruption to notions of generation caused by literature of cloning.
They are talking about putting all abstracts online at the BSLS blog (where you can currently find a link to all paper titles and speakers). I have fuller notes on many of the papers, as I was uncharacteristically organised on the way home and typed them up. I also have a full version of my paper if anyone's interested in reading it.
I'll paste up an extended overview of my notes on Shuttleworth's paper next week, and the abstract for my paper is below the cut.
From the ridiculous to the sublime: the varied appeals of children’s popular science.
What are the appeals of children’s popular science? Why read, write, publish, buy or give awards to them? This paper aims to address these questions through examination of the appeals the books themselves suggest they possess. Throughout, I will be taking the Horrible Science series as case study. These books tend to start and end with statements relating to why reading the book is a worthwhile experience. Many of these statements relate to specifics of the book’s style; promising jokes about teacher’s dress sense or stories of blood and snot. More interestingly for my purposes, they also refer to the advantages of scientific knowledge more broadly; suggesting their topic as particularly interesting and/ or useful, and with this making claims about the role of science to individuals and wider society.
I suggest that Horrible Science books that deal with the physical sciences tend to focus on the inherent worth of scientific knowledge. However, when it comes to natural sciences, the subject matter rather than the subject (i.e. plants rather than botany) are assumed to amaze and enthuse the reader. I further argue that the appeals made by Horrible Science fall into three categories: humour; the practical promise of scientific and technological progress; the aesthetic and/or spiritual worth of scientific knowledge. Tackling the third “appeal” (aesthetic/ spiritual worth) in more detail, I shall discuss and develop in detail the idea of the sublime.
To develop the idea of evocations of the sublime in cultural images of science, this paper draws on Jon Turney’s discussion of the sublime in popular science books. I also consider Kant’s “mathematical sublime” and the importance he stresses on terror and awe, as well as David Nye’s “American Technological Sublime”. Rooting my analysis in critical analysis to the public understanding of science, I argue that such evocations of the sublime act to construct a particular form of division between science and non-scientific audience members.